During the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) patriotic stationery—illustrated letterheads and envelopes—was widely used, particularly for letters to and from the battlefront. These envelopes are known to collectors as “patriotic covers.” However, the first picture-backed government-issued postal cards were produced in Austria-Hungary, and the images depicted the Franco-Prussian War. Nearly three million of these cards sold in 1870.

The popularity of postcards began to decline during World War I. At the time, many American companies had designed their own postcards, but they had been shipped to Germany or Austria for high-quality and low-cost printing. Even English publishers, like Raphael Tuck and Sons, had their cards printed in Germany or Austria. Thus the Great War, beginning in 1914, disrupted the production of cards. Plus, the somber mood created by the conflict made postcards seem like disrespectful frivolities. In 1918, the postage rates for postcards doubled, and after the war, telephones became the preferred means for staying in touch.

Even so, U.S. manufacturers began to produce their own cards around 1915. These were much lower in quality, as lush lithography was replaced by half-tone process printing, and they generally had a white border. But the war was a compelling reason to send postcards across the Atlantic in both directions, as soldiers and their loved ones exchanged updates via post. Wartime postcards most often depicted military leaders, officers, and soldiers, as well as explosions and bombed-out buildings.

In Europe, the war was all-consuming, resulting in a plethora of propaganda postcards which solidified the divide between “us” and “them” on both sides. “Positive” propaganda cards rallied both the Allies and Central Powers to fight “For King and Country.” On the other hand, “negative” propaganda cards were designed to ridicule and belittle enemies.

Central Powers postcards asserted the superiority of German people and technology and the inferiority of the Allies. In such comic cards, the Allies would be subjected to a demeaning type of punishment reserved for children or dogs. Even the German mythological figure Michel, who represents the laid-back and gentle side of the national character, was depicted as an aggressor. The Allies would often be portrayed as animals that did not deserve human respect.

Some of the most powerful anti-German propaganda postcard sets were produced by Italian postcard artist Tito Corbell, who made an important series of cards telling the story of nurse Edith Cavell, who was killed by German soldiers. Collectors, however, tend to favor Corbell’s more lighthearted work, like his images of glamorous women.

In England, the Bamforth publishing company, known for its mildly risqué “seaside” cards, produced many mocking and emasculating cards against the Germans. British historian G.M...

The most beautiful cards made during World War I are known as “silks.” French and Belgian refugee women would embroider designs on silk—usually incorporating British, French, and American flags—and ship them to factories to be trimmed and mounted onto postcard backs. These were tremendously popular with American and British soldiers stationed in France; it’s estimated that more than 10 million were produced before they died out in 1923.

Some of these postcards had flaps so that a tiny printed greeting card could be slipped between the silk and backboard. Generally they lack postage stamps because they were sent in Military Mail pouches at no charge to the soldier.

Silks were different from “linens,” a new kind of postcard that emerged post-World War I, made from an uncoated card stock that had a fabric-like texture and tended to feature garish colors. During World War II, as in the first world war, servicemen could send postcards home for free. Postcards became an important and easy means for soldiers to connect with their families, wives, and girlfriends back home, a quick way to let them know, “I’m still alive and thinking about you.”

Naturally, postcards were used for propaganda during World War II. Many of these propaganda postcards were relatively innocuous, sent within the U.S. and to and from soldiers, cheerleading the war effort. Evidence also suggests, though, that “black” propaganda postcards were used by the U.S. as a part of psychological warfare.

The Office of Strategic Services put out postcards that appeared to be German in origin, using real German postcard images and German wording that opposed Hitler and the Nazi Party, intended to suggest there was a strong anti-Fascist underground movement. Documentation indicates these cards were printed at a press taken over by the Morale Operation department of the OSS. As these cards were likely destroyed by the Nazis, they are extremely rare; only a few examples are known to exist today.

But for loved ones back home in America, the most popular kinds of cards to send to the boys overseas are what are known as “arcade postcards” or “girlie cards.” Based on the pin-ups of Gil Elvgren, Earl Moran, George Petty, Alberto Vargas, and others, these images of sexy ladies were meant to cheer up and provide a well-earned diversion to war-weary soldiers.

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